ORONO, Maine — The Brewer-based infantrymen who recently returned from a nine-month deployment in one of the most dangerous places on Earth — Combat Outpost Dand Wa Patan in Afghanistan — were honored Friday for their service and sacrifice.
“I am glad to be standing before you with all my men,” company commander Capt. Paul Bosse of Auburn said to those gathered to celebrate the men of Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Mountain Infantry.
During the Freedom Salute, the 157 Maine Army National Guard soldiers received high praise for the work they did in Afghanistan and also got walking sticks and a handshake from Galen Cole, a World War II veteran and founder of the Cole Land Transportation Museum.
The walking sticks are inscribed to say they are veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and are designed to strengthen the brotherhood that already exists among those who have served this county in uniform, Maj. Darryl Lyons said when Cole took to the stage.
The Freedom Salute was held at the University of Maine’s Collins Center for the Arts, which is where a send-off ceremony took place just before the infantrymen left Maine.
“You are heroes, each and every one of you,” Dr. Robert Dana, UMaine dean of students, said in opening remarks. “You have our respect and deep admiration.”
The event was a chance for state dignitaries, including Gov. Paul LePage and Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and local military leaders to say thank you to the men who patrolled the Pakistan border, preventing al-Qaida and Taliban forces from infiltrating Afghanistan.
It also was a chance for a spotlight to be shone on the people left behind to support the soldiers — the wives, parents, friends, employers and communities — LePage, Bosse and others said.
“These people deserve our admiration, as much as the soldiers,” the governor said.
Family Readiness Group leaders Aimee Brooks and Sara Boucci, whose husbands were deployed with the unit, were honored for their support of the families, said Lyon, a former commander of the Brewer unit who was the Freedom Salute master of ceremonies.
Snowe and Collins each gave patriotic speeches, and Collins finished her time at the podium by reading a letter to Bravo Company — named “Team Bear” — from Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The letter from Petraeus thanked the Maine soldiers and ended with a handwritten note that read, “Very well done!” Collins said.
The Brewer-based soldiers who left Vacationland in December 2009 arrived in Afghanistan as active duty soldiers in March 2010 to serve with the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team out of Vermont.
While everyone in the Maine infantry unit made it home, two from the brigade were not as lucky, Maj. Gen. John “Bill” Libby, adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, told the gathering.
He said it’s important that soldiers returning from war zones — even from companies that do not lose anyone —be aware that war takes its toll on people and that there are resources available to help.
Being surrounded by soldiers who put their lives in each other’s hands “changes one’s life profoundly,” said Libby, a Vietnam veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after returning home. “We’re all changed by our deployments.”
Bravo Company should be extremely proud of its accomplishments, he said, especially since “combat infantry carry the most, eat the worst, sleep the least and die the first.”
The list of others honored at the welcome home celebration included Stephen and Tabitha King, who donated money so the unit, which was training out of state, could return home for Christmas in 2009; the Lewiston Sun Journal, which sent over newspapers; Dunkin’ Donuts, which sent over coffee, and Bernie LaBree, who helped establish a scholarship fund and provided LaBree’s baked goods for the troops when they left Maine.
When the members of Bravo Company stood to receive their walking sticks from Cole, a group of youngsters in the back of the crowd began jumping up and down.
“Now I see him. He’s right there,” Michael Fairservice, 8, said of his father, Sgt. James Fairservice.
Phoebe Fairservice, 3, and Elijah Grant, 5, also could barely contain their excitement at seeing their fathers walk onstage.
As the event ended, Anna Grant, who held her daughter Rachel, 1, in her arms, quietly gathered her and her children’s stuff together and met up with her husband, Sgt. T.J. Grant, who just returned from his third deployment.
The couple were dating when he went to Iraq in 2003 with the 1st Armored Division, then married before he went back for his second Iraqi tour in 2006. He said the time away from his wife and children has been hard.
“I’d like to say it gets easier, but it doesn’t,” Anna Grant said. “I don’t sleep for a year at a time. You get used to it, but it doesn’t get easier. The kids have to eat and the laundry has to be done.”